Victor Serge on the CHEKA (1940s)

Victor Serge, writing his memoirs in the 1940s, recalls the CHEKA and some of its errors:

“Since the first massacres of Red prisoners by the Whites, the murders of Volodarsky and Uritsky and the attempt against Lenin (in the summer of 1918), the custom of arresting and, often, executing hostages had become generalised and legal. Already Cheka, which made mass arrests of suspects, the was tending to settle their fate independently, under formal control of the Party, but in reality without anybody’s knowledge.

The Party endeavoured to head it with incorruptible men like the former convict Dzerzhinsky, a sincere idealist, ruthless but chivalrous, with the emaciated profile of an Inquisitor: tall forehead, bony nose, untidy goatee, and an expression of weariness and austerity. But the Party had few men of this stamp and many Chekas.

I believe that the formation of the Chekas was one of the gravest and most impermissible errors that the Bolshevik leaders committed in 1918 when plots, blockades, and interventions made them lose their heads. All evidence indicates that revolutionary tribunals, functioning in the light of day and admitting the right of defence, would have attained the same efficiency with far less abuse and depravity. Was it necessary to revert to the procedures of the Inquisition?

By the beginning of 1919, the Chekas had little or no resistance against this psychological perversion and corruption. I know for a fact that Dzerzhinsky judged them to be “half-rotten”, and saw no solution to the evil except in shooting the worst Chekists and abolishing the death-penalty as quickly as possible… Meanwhile, the Terror went on, since the whole Party was living in the sure inner knowledge that they would be massacred in the event of defeat; and defeat remained possible from one week to the next.

In every prison, there were quarters reserved for Chekists, judges, police of all sorts, informers and executioners. The executioners, who used Nagan revolvers, generally ended up being executed themselves. They began to drink and wander around firing unexpectedly at anybody. I was acquainted with several cases of this sort.

I was also closely acquainted with the terrible Chudin case. Still young, though a revolutionary of 1905 vintage, Chudin, a tall curly-headed lad… had fallen in love with a girl he had met at a class. She became his mistress. A number of swindlers exploited his sincerity… Dzerzhinsky had Chudin and his girl and the swindlers all shot. No one doubted Chudin’s honesty; there was bitter dismay all round. Years later, comrades said to me: “On that day we shot the best man among us”. They never forgave themselves.”